Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Meat Primer Volume 2: Pork Ribs

Ribs are one of my favorite pieces of meat to cook. They're the ultimate finger food, make for great stews and curries, and are easily accessible in any local grocery mart. They're an incredibly delicious cut of meat and extremely affordable to buy.

The only problem is that they're quite hard to cook properly if you don't have the right technique. So in this volume of The Meat Primer, we're going to talk about pork ribs. In specific, we're going to talk about how to make the perfect slab of pork spare ribs or baby back ribs.

Before we start cooking ribs, we need to take a look at why cooking ribs are so difficult. The rib cage of all animals serves to protect its inner organs and to facilitate respiration. By expanding and contracting, a rib cage acts as a vacuum for its lungs. This continuous process attributes greatly to why the meat in between ribs is so tough and stringy.

Ribs are laced with an abundance of connective tissue. But wait! I'm talking about the same type of connective tissue that melts and becomes gelatin! This should automatically fire off alarms that ribs are the perfect candidate for braising. In Asian cultures, braised spare ribs are plentiful in many dishes, such as curry. If you've been having trouble cooking ribs in the past, this may be exactly why they are not fork tender. Ribs need time. Low and slow heat with many hours of roasting and braising is definitely the go-to method for cooking ribs.

Lastly, the underside of ribs all have a thick, leathery membrane that will not dissolve no matter how long you cook it. This membrane is called silver skin. Feel free to eat it, but most recipes will call for the removal of the silver skin. To do this, insert the back end of a spoon in between the rib meat and silver skin. Slowly pry away the skin, and remove any pieces remaining.

Cooking Methods
Since we have already established the fact that ribs need time to break down and become fork tender, let's talk about the more intricate methods of cooking ribs. For example, if we must braise ribs, how do such dishes as barbeque smoked spare ribs or baby back ribs exist? It's generally a crime to boil ribs in water and then stick them back into the oven or smoker (it removes all the flavor from the meat)! To do so, we're going to introduce a method called the Texas Crutch.

First, let's establish our goals when roasting ribs. We aim to:
-Achieve tender "fall apart" perfection
-Achieve the Maillard Reaction
-Use proper seasoning in forms of rub or sauce

We can reach all of these goals in one simple process. The Texas Crutch is a barbeque smoking technique developed to bring tough cuts of meat up to ideal temperature without exposing the meat to too much heat and smoke. It was developed using cutting edge technology and done by wrapping the meat up in parchment paper or foil with a small amount of liquid after the first 2-3 hours of smoking. The meat will continue to cook for another 1-2 hours, before finishing up on a high heat grill.

Finishing ribs on high heat will add a seared crust to finish, as well as caramelize any sauces added (usually multiple layers of sauce). By searing the meat at the end, we are performing a reverse-sear method to induce the Maillard Reaction.

Wait a second...isn't that...braising...?

The Texas Crutch is exactly that. It is a simplified and reduced method of braising. But don't ever say that to a BBQ Pit Master. There's at least some technique involved!

There are many variations of how to use the Texas Crutch in cooking ribs, but it needs to be used at one time or another. Each variations will depend on what tools you have available and if you're willing to go the extra mile in cooking delicious and succulent ribs.

Variations Of The Texas Crutch
To make a slab of ribs in your home, all you need is an oven. But of course, we can do better than that can't we? Here are two examples for pork baby back ribs.

With only a oven:
-Wrap slab of ribs with foil as if it were a boat
-Add 1/2 cup of water or broth into the wrapped package
-Seal and roast for 1 hour 30 minutes at 350 °F
-Remove from foil and finish ribs off by using a broiler.

With an oven and a grill:
-Wrap slab of ribs with foil as if it were a boat
-Add 1/2 cup of water or broth into the wrapped package
-Seal and roast for 1 hour 30 minutes at 350 °F
-Remove from foil and finish ribs off on the charcoal grill

Without a grill, the first method is only able to sear the meat at the very end with the use of a broiler. Even so, oven broilers are usually uneven, and do not create a perfect sear.

Using a charcoal or propane grill has many benefits on top of the oven-only method. The high concentration of heat is able to induce the Maillard Reaction after the ribs are finished in the oven. It also serves to help dry and crisp up the surface of the meat and better caramelize any sauces we choose to use. If using a charcoal grill, we can infuse some delicious smokey flavors and the end product is absolutely delicious.

Both of these methods will produce incredibly juicy and tender ribs. But if you can go the extra mile and use the charcoal grill, I guarantee the ribs will be just that much better. 

Shown above, I added about half a cup of water into the wrapped up ribs. Place your ribs meat side down, and pour the liquid on the top half. For better results, try using apple juice or chicken broth!

Seasoning your ribs is based on math. Seriously, math. What we're looking at when dealing with ribs is the fact that they have a high surface area to volume ratio. This means that using a dry rub of seasonings will have more of an effect than using a brine. Marinades won't work either because of the nature of the cooking techniques that using. There is enough connective tissue and fat laced in ribs that proper seasoning is all that is needed to bring out amazing flavors in any cut of ribs. Just make sure not to double salt your meat and any sauces that you end up using on the ribs. 

Before adding our dry rub though, we need some type of adhesive for the seasoning. Besides the high amount of collagen in ribs, the meat is quite flavorless. We need to pack as much flavor as possible onto our ribs, or else they will end up tasting bland. I start by mixing equal parts of mustard and olive oil together and using it as a spread on the ribs before dusting with rub. Mustard is a natural emulsifier of fat, and if you continuously mix the mustard and oil together, you will end up with one single mixture.

This mixture above is actually equal parts Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard and Olive Oil. I was inspired by Alton Brown to give mustard a try, and I must say it produces a huge amount of flavor. A thin coating will be enough to help the dry rub stick.

All that's left to do is to dust and cook! Recipe for baby back pork ribs will come soon!

The Difference Between Baby Back and Spare Ribs
Simply put, they come from different sections of the rib. Baby back ribs are closes to the tenderloin, but are much smaller. In theory, baby back ribs are more tender and juicier. But if we cook spare ribs correctly, I believe they yield a better final product. Spare ribs have more meat, are cheaper to buy, and when bitten into, feel more like ripping into a large chunk of meat. 

The only drawbacks of using spare ribs are their massive size and uneven shape. The bones are thicker on one end, leading to uneven cooking times. Sometimes, they won't even fit on your grill or tray! You can remedy this buy splitting the rack in half. It's much easier to handle, season, and cook.

Baby back ribs are easily found in all local markets, but spare ribs in a full slab may be harder to come by. If you are looking to try your hand on spare ribs, look for a specific cut called "St. Louis Ribs". The St. Louis cut of spare ribs is actually a technique of trimming the ribs so that they have a uniform and even rectangular shape. If you don't do this, the bottom of the spare rib will come with a large bone and some awkwardly placed flabby pieces of meat. They don't exactly cook well, and it's best to remove them and save them for stock.

This Is Not Barbecue 
Barbecue, or BBQ, is a completely different technique of cooking ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and etc. We have barely scratched the surface of what BBQ means, and I will delve into the subject soon. However, this does not stop us from creating finger-licking good ribs at home! 

Stay tuned for my personal dry rub, BBQ, and baby back rib recipes!

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